- Florida's leader in sacks credits his mom for instilling the drive that makes him one of the nation's most explosive edge rushers. Soon he may be able to pay her back.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Jachai Polite knows exactly what he wants to do. He also knows exactly what he never wants to do again. We’ll start with the latter.
Two years ago, Polite was a freshman defensive lineman at Florida. Chris Rumph, Polite’s position coach at the time, knew he had something special. But Rumph needed to find a way to get Polite on the field. The Gators needed help at three technique, the defensive tackle who lines up on the outside eye of one guard. So Polite, who weighed 260 pounds coming out of Mainland High in Daytona Beach, Fla., hit the weights, ate a few more of his beloved Swedish Fish and pushed his body close to 270 pounds. That got him in the game, where he frequently found himself trying to break through 650 pounds of double-teaming offensive linemen.
“It feels like two pickup trucks. You know, the ones with hooks on the back,” Polite says, laughing now at the memory. “F-150 Super Duty trucks, just going fast. It’s hard to fight them.”
The former Florida coaching staff knew that was a temporary situation and moved Polite back to his natural defensive end spot last season, but the experience left Polite with a burning desire to make sure he played so well off the edge that no one considered moving him inside again. He stacked that goal atop the goal he set when he created his Twitter handle as a ninth grader. Those twin aims helped push Polite to slim down and harness his natural explosiveness to become one of the nation’s most disruptive edge rushers. Going into Saturday’s game against Georgia in Jacksonville, the 6'2", 245-pound Polite leads the Gators with seven sacks and leads the nation with four forced fumbles.
He also seems well on his way to making his Twitter handle a reality. That day when he created the account as a high school freshman, Polite thought about the thing he wanted most and typed it after the @ symbol. To those who followed, he became @RetireMoms.
Katrina Simmons didn’t know at first that the oldest of her four children had made his social media identity his desire to allow her to retire. Simmons doesn’t have social media. She has no time for that mess. She works as a housekeeper at a hotel on the beachside of Daytona Beach, and when she finishes her shifts she returns home and styles hair. She had the second job first. She learned to braid hair at age 12 while living in Ormond Beach. By 15, she had loyal paying clients. Sometimes one head can take up to 10 hours, and Simmons’s clients keep coming back because she takes the time to get it right.
If Polite makes it to the NFL and makes enough money to give his mom an easier life, he probably won’t completely fulfill the goal stated in his Twitter bio. Simmons might quit the hotel job, but she can’t disappoint those customers who rely on her to keep their coiffures in order.
Polite credits his mother for his work ethic and his attitude on the field. It was that attitude that allowed him to make the play that introduced him to the nation and endeared him to his teammates. Early in the fourth quarter of last year’s Tennessee game, a slightly heavier Polite rushed upfield toward quarterback Quinten Dormady only to realize that the Volunteers had set up a screen pass to tailback John Kelly. Polite was on Tennessee’s 35-yard line when he realized he’d been duped, so he spun and began chasing Kelly, who had a six-yard head start.
“If not me, who?” Polite remembers thinking to himself as he stalked Kelly from behind. He also remembers thinking something else: “If he keeps going full speed, I’m not going to catch him.” Fortunately for Polite, some traffic appeared in the form of his teammates. “Luckily, he had to break some tackles,” Polite says.
Polite nearly caught Kelly at the Florida 49, but the back turned on the jets. So Polite kept sprinting down the right sideline hoping for another chance. It came when Kelly had to juke a tackler at the Florida 40. Polite ran past the decelerating Kelly and turned left. When Kelly hit the gas again, he ran smack into Polite at the Florida 31. Polite had raced a tailback for 34 yards, won, and then planted the back into the turf.
Watching at home, Polite’s uncle Lawrence Martin IV pulled out his phone and recorded the play. He then posted it on Twitter. “And it went viral,” Franklin’s sister Simmons says.
As of Tuesday morning, the tweet has been retweeted 16,060 times and liked 37,821 times. The video has been viewed 2.37 million times, and it gets a bump every time Polite makes a big play this season. “It just went crazy,” Martin says. “I had to cut my notifications off.” Martin knew he was seeing something special. He may be biased because he’s the younger brother of Polite’s mother, but he starred on the offensive line at Seabreeze High in Daytona Beach and then played at South Florida. He has spent the past few years shuttling between Canada and various professional indoor football leagues.
Martin is seven years Polite’s senior, so he acted as an older brother to Polite. When Martin was in high school, he couldn’t envision the tall elementary schooler who always tagged along as a future NFL player. “He thought he was Kevin Durant,” Martin says. Martin felt the same way about himself until late in his high school career when he realized that at 6'3", football could take him much further than basketball.
Polite was in the same boat. He starred as a defensive end and as a punter* at Mainland, the school that produced New York Jets defensive end (and former USC star) Leonard Williams. During the recruiting process, Polite leaned heavily toward heading west to play for the Trojans as well. But several branches of his mother’s family live in Gainesville, and Simmons impressed upon him how much easier college life would be if he had a support system nearby. He listened.
*Yes, Polite was an excellent high school punter. He and current Florida punter Tommy Townsend learned from the same kicking coach. So far, there are no plans for a trick play that would put Townsend and Polite on the field ready to punt at the same time. “I was thinking about it,” Polite says. “But I don’t think coach is ever thinking about it. But it would be a dream play.”
No matter where Polite played, he would have made the same impact as long as the coaching staff realized his ideal position and size. He’s at his best in the mid-240s, screaming off the edge. When he was bigger, he didn’t feel so explosive. Now? “I’m just gliding almost,” he says.
That has allowed him to make plays like this one from the LSU game. The Tigers had driven immediately down the field and scored, and their second possession also appeared headed for the end zone when Polite squeezed between left tackle Saahdiq Charles and left guard Adrian Magee and crushed quarterback Joe Burrow. The ball squirted loose and Florida recovered. The Gators had been headed for a 14-point deficit, but the momentum swing allowed the Florida defense to gather itself and gave the Florida offense some time to work out its own kinks.
A few days after that game, Florida coach Dan Mullen was asked if Polite reminded him of any players he’d worked alongside before. “He’s really explosive off the end,” Mullen said. “I’ve been around guys who had some different deals with power and length. [Former Gator] Carlos Dunlap had unbelievable length. I had Preston Smith [at Mississippi State] who had great length with explosion. But not just the pure quickness and the burst ... that I’ve seen with Polite.”
Mullen paused, searching his memory bank to make sure he didn’t leave out anyone whose explosiveness matched Polite. Then he remembered that he spent the 1998 season as a graduate assistant at Syracuse. That was Dwight Freeney’s freshman year. At the time, the freshmen had their own workouts early in camp and graduate assistants had to hold the blocking pads during the workouts. “I had to block,” Mullen said. “It went real well.” Polite, Mullen said, “has got that type of explosion.”
Freeney recently wrapped a 16-season career in the NFL. If Polite can come close to that, Simmons will enjoy a fruitful (semi-)retirement. “It kind of seems unreal,” Polite says. “But hopefully I can really make that happen. That would be very cool.”